In retrospect, the monsters and bogeymen who frightened impressionable children of my generation were pretty lame. Perhaps the most lame of them all was Frankenstein, a lumbering behemoth who walked around with his arms outstretched like a sleepwalking Shaquille O’Neal. Frankenstein snarled and growled a lot, probably because Gene Hackman poured hot soup on his lap. Then there was that pasty-faced vampire Dracula who could be repelled with garlic (which explains his aversion for Italian food). Dracula couldn’t even enjoy New Mexico’s 310 days of sunshine without sizzling and hissing like a strip of bacon.
In comparison Japan’s monsters are pretty badass. Godzilla, a foul-tempered prehistoric sea monster prone to tantrums destroyed Tokyo several times and was pretty much impervious to conventional weaponry. Godzilla’s nemesis, the fierce Mothra was a powerful psychic (not in the “unfold the mysteries of your future for $29” sort of way) who could really blow your mind…away. Then there are the Oni, a number of supernatural ogres with really cool powers. Oni can cause disease and disaster and are associated with bad luck, misfortune and the consumption of human flesh.
To my friend Carlos, a devotee of manga (Japanese comics) as well as mangia (the Italian verb for “eat”), Oni Noodles is a combination of two of Japan’s most sublime offerings: monsters and ramen. He practically used to live at the Marble Street Brewery on Sundays when Oni Noodles was on the premises. We finally acquiesced to his repeated requests for us to join him for a bowl of “the very best ramen in Albuquerque.” It was an education on the fine points on Oni, both the motorized mobile kitchen (that’s food truck to you, Bob) and the Japanese monster. Standing next to the truck’s black banner, Carlos explained the facial features of the oni (a horned and fanged terror) though my rapt attention was more focused on the bowl of ramen beneath the creature’s fierce countenance.
Oni Noodles is the brainchild of business partners Daniel Linver and Chef David Gaspar de Alba, formerly executive chef of Artichoke Cafe. Don’t assume there’s no way an El Paso native could ever prepare outstanding ramen. Before relocating to New Mexico, Chef Gaspar de Alba was executive chef at Portland’s highly-regarded Yazuka, an Izakaya (a type of Japanese pub) “for merry misfits and mavericks.” That tagline speaks volumes about the whimsy of naming a mobile kitchen for one of the most feared of all Japanese monsters.
Visit the Oni Noodles website and you’ll read that almost all ingredients are sourced from local producers: Talus Wind Ranch, Silver Leaf Farms, Vida Verde Farm, CLC Pecan Farm, Raised on Sand Farm, Carrasco Family Farm to name a few. Quality, freshness and relationships with local purveyors are defining characteristic of Chef Gaspar de Alba’s modus operandi. So is uncompromising dedication to his craft. When he’s not visiting farmer’s markets, he’s painstakingly preparing the broth for a ramen that rendered my friend Howie “The Duke of Duke City” Kaibel (Yelp‘s charismatic Albuquerque Community Manager) “completely at a loss for words.”
Befitting a mobile kitchen, the menu was rather limited–a couple of small plates, two signature ramen dishes and add-ons to take your ramen to the next level (and its baseline is already stratospheric). Call it a limited menu with unlimited deliciousness. On the day of our inaugural visit, another mobile kitchen was parked on Marble Street. While that mobile kitchen had a long menu, Oni Noodles had a long line. Patrons were queued up like fanatic iPhone users on the date of a product launch. We almost felt sorry for the other mobile kitchen, but not for very long.
In 2019, Oni Noodles earned “Local Hero: Best Food Truck” honors from Edible New Mexico readers. An article celebrating the selection was published in April, 2020, deep in the throes of the Covid pandemic. The article indicated: “There’s good news and bad news about Oni Food Truck. The bad news is the food truck no longer exists. The great news is that Oni is opening a restaurant in Downtown Albuquerque!” Located on the southeast corner of Central and Sixth, Oni now has the capacity to sate adoring throngs. Alas, because of the pandemic, most of us have no idea what the interior of the restaurant looks like. We place our orders online then pick them up at the appointed time at a window.
24 March 2019: Our first indication that Oni Noodles was a different (nay, elevated) mobile kitchen came when our small plate arrived. It was served on a real plate, not the paper plates associated with your typical mobile kitchen dining experience. Posed on a pristine semi-rectangular vessel were a trio of smoked pork belly steamed buns (smoked pork belly, pickled apple, persimmon, sweet chile). Imbued with an olfactory-arousing smokiness which left us wishing we’d never have to wash our hands again, these hand-held treats were like a celestial syzygy, each component melding into a cohesive, singular whole. We’ll remember that coalescence of diverse flavors for a long time.
24 March 2019: Masuharu Morimoto, my very favorite (by far) Iron Chef, described ramen as “a dish that’s very high in calories and sodium.” He quipped that “one way to make it slightly healthier is to leave the soup and just eat the noodles.” While his “high in calories and sodium” descriptor may well be veracious, there’s no way you’d ever want to discard any of the components of the Pecan Dashi Ramen (smoked tofu, red chile tare, pecan broth, daikon, squash, cabbage, shitake, slow egg, chile oil, scallion). This is a magical elixir, a swoon-inducing bowl of cohesive components that will delight your taste buds. Perhaps only the prenatal experience of swimming in amniotic fluid is as soothing as the pecan broth being slurped up (slowly so you can savor its richness). Add smoked bone marrow to make an already magnificent dish transformative.
24 March 2019: For some of us, the term “shoyu,” the Japanese name for soy sauce, has a lip-pursing effect. Indeed, even “low sodium” soy sauce seems to have a week’s allowance of salt. With ramen, we seem to forget shoyu has such a high sodium content. Who wants to think about how salty a dish is when we’re focused on how wonderful it tastes as we’re savoring each spoonful. The Shoyu Ramen (smoked pork belly, pork bone broth, daikon, squash, cabbage, shitake, slow egg, chile oil, scallion) at Oni Noodles is an exemplar of fresh ingredients swimming in the richness of bone broth which, by the way, can improve digestion, allergies, immune health, brain health, and much more. Lest I be remiss, the noodles on both swimming pool-sized bowls of ramen, are perfectly al dente.
7 August 2020: You might believe the great dumpling debate is whether such wrapped treats as calzones, corn dogs and samosas can actually be considered dumplings as Wikipedia contends. For my Kim and I, the most contentious issue surrounding dumplings is whether to order pork dumplings (her favorite) or vegetarian dumplings (my choice). My argument is you can’t distinguish one restaurant’s pork dumplings from another restaurant’s unless they’re served soup dumpling style or they’re ameliorated with an herb (such as Budai’s incomparable pork chive dumplings). With vegetarian dumplings–whether they be scallion dumplings or ginger dumplings–there’s more flavor and diversity.
Oni’s shiitake dumplings (shiitake, kale, tofu, ginger, scallion, fried garlic chile oil, ponzu) are my new absolute favorite. These life-altering paragons of wrapped deliciousness are amped up with a diversity of flavors coalescing into explosions of wonder. Order them spicy for a whiplash of eye-watering, sweat-inducing heat–not enough to garner a concession “these are too hot for me” from my Kim, but piquant enough for even born-and-bred New Mexicans to respect. Served five per order, they need no sauce on the side because they’re served in an a chile oil the color of burgundy wine.
7 August 2020: Ramen is the marriage of elements–particularly broth and noodles–interplaying harmoniously in a bowl. Remove one of those elements and you’ve got an entirely different culinary experience. Perhaps because its reputation was established on the wings of ramen, Oni’s menu points out in all caps that “no broth is included in this dish” for its Ribs & Noodles (smoked baby back ribs, peach miso sauce, garlic chile noodles, braised chard). You might not miss the broth. The garlic chile noodles are magnificent in their own right, a glorious, color-flecked tangle of thick, luxurious noodles. Atop the noodles are four meaty pork ribs with a faint smokiness and the more prominent flavor of peach-miso sauce. Few barbecue restaurants have shown such mastery in the preparation of ribs.
If you’re still wondering why a restaurant would share its appellation with a ferocious Japanese monster, my friend Carlos may have pegged it: “badass monster, badass ramen.”
600 Central Avenue, Suite 100
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 7 August 2020
1st VISIT: 24 March 2019
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Pecan Dashi Ramen, Shoyu Ramen, Smoked Bone Marrow, Smoked Pork Belly Steamed Buns, Ribs & Noodles, Shiitake Dumplings